USC Digital Folklore Archives / May, 2019
Legends
Proverbs

The Story Behind Japanese Saying: 情けは人の為ならず (One Good Turn Deserves Another)

Main Piece:

“There is a common saying in Japan, in Japanese it’s: 情けは人の為ならず.

Original script: 情けは人の為ならず

Phonetic (Roman) script: Nasake wa hito no tame narazu

Transliteration: the good you do for others is good you do yourself.

Full translation: One good turn deserves another. 

It means when you do things for someone, it’s not for them, it’s for yourself. So, I mean it connects to the story about like, ummm like an old man walking to a winter mountain, then he finds like three stone, umm what do you call those? Like statues of Japanese monk. It’s like a tiny mini one, really cute. And he’s like: “Oh no, it’s snowing.” It’s statue right? Obviously it has no feelings or anything. But then the old man was like:”Oh my gosh. It’s snowing and it’s probably really cold.” So he makes these like three ummm straw hats for those three stone statues and then place it upon them. Then he will like, you know, get along his life. When he goes home, and the next morning, he wakes up and he opens the front door, and then he finds like this chunk of rice. At that time, obviously rice equals money. So what happen was those stone statue, like the monks kind of came to life and came to life to thank him, saying like thanks for the straw hats. Oh I think he makes like straw coats as well. You know, just like something to put on the statue. And like these rice is just to show gratitude and everything. So yea, this is where this saying comes from. So 情けは人の為ならず is just do something for someone, like yea you are helping them but ultimately you are helping yourself. Like it’s always gonna come back to you. That’s like the saying.”

Background:

My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She knew this saying and the story behind it because her dad told her when she was at a kid. She feels a lot of the time when people do things for someone or even just make friends with someone, they think about benefit or cost they get. But in her mind, because of this saying and the way her dad teaches her, she deems that in order to live a happy life, people need to do things for each other. So my informant is always happy to give out her help and be kind to people even when they are mean sometimes. Growing up embedded with this mindset, my informant feels this saying shapes her action and life attitude.

Context:

She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.

Thoughts

Personally, I really like this folk piece because it’s not like other sayings that only have one sentence, this saying has a story behind it, which reflects a lot of Japanese culture. For example, it talks about Japanese monks which are associated with Shinto and Buddhism religions which are the two major religions in Japan. Also, the straw hat and straw coat that are mentioned in the story are also representations of Japanese tradition. Straw hat is often worn by Japanese monks. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch Ikkyū-san, which is a Japanese anime about the life of a monk. In the show, I often see the character Ikkyū wears a straw hat. In addition, the straw coat, known as mino (蓑) in Japan, is a traditional Japanese garment that functions like a raincoat and is often used in snowy regions. Lastly, the gift of rice reflects the Asian culture as well. If it is a western story, it will probably be gold which is often seen in western fair tales. The presentation of rice shows culture difference between east and west.

 

 

Folk Beliefs

The Folk Belief of Fairy Cycle/Ring

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: When my sister and I was little, my friends told us these things called Fairy Cycles. And so essentially what a a fairy cycle is this ring of mushroom that show up in the yard often after it rains outside or just been the weather is a little off. What it signifies is that there’s been a fairy there. However, there is also like a tale that if you go inside of the fairy ring and you sit in the middle of it, you will be possessed. So like if you go inside, the fairy will capture you, just do something bad.

Interviewer: So when you go into the ring, are you being blessed or possessed?

Informant: I don’t really know what it means. I was really little when I heard that and it is just like being possessed by a demon or something haha. Yea, so my sister and I were very interested in fairy and we would also built little houses out of flowers and sticks and natural materials to attract fairy or something.

Interviewer: So do you ever go inside?

Informant: No, we try not to, because apparently there are some evil power or something if you go inside haha. I honestly don’t know.

Interviewer: So do you just watch them grow?

Informant: Yea, they are just there. A lot of the time, if it rains outside, you will see a circle of mushroom under grass, like it could be like just ten or twenty. Sometimes they are bigger mushrooms, and sometimes they are little. And it is said that it is caused by fairies dancing.

Background:

My informant heard this piece from her friend when she was little. And because she and her sister were super into fairy, they were always excited when they saw fairy rings appeared. They even built flower houses to attract fairies. The story behind the fairy cycle adds fun experience to her childhood memory.

Context:

This piece was collected in a causal interview setting. My informant and I finished our class and were talking as we walked to the USC village together. We then sit in an outdoor space and collected some folklore from each other.

Thoughts:

A lot of kids are drawn to fairies. Part of the reason is that there are many fairy tales for kids to read. When thinking of fairies, they are often linked to natural settings like flowers and nature in general, which makes sense for kids to believe mushroom ring is caused by fairy dancing. Often time when talking about folk belief, there are a lot of things that people should not do. For this case specifically, kids are not supposed to sit inside the cycle but rather stay outside. However, if someone accidentally steps into fairy rings, she or he can run around the ring nine times to reverse the penalty.

For more solution to reverse the curse, please see:

Leafloor, Liz. “Do You Dare Enter a Fairy Ring? The Mythical Mushroom Portals of the Supernatural.” Ancient Origins, 28 Aug. 2018.

 

Legends

Cannibalism in European Urban Legend

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between my friend, identified as AF, and I, identified as JS.

AF: There is a story that I heard. I heard this summer. I was working in Europe for this summer, in Prague. And my friend told me the story. You know, my friends and I go out at night and that kind of stuff. And my friend told me the story about girls going home with random guys. I though it was a legit story when I heard the first time until I heard more people knew it.

JS: Oh so it’s not a real thing.

AF: Yea, I don’ think so. Apparently this girl and this guy was at the bar, umm they are like talking. Anyway it’s going really well, so they headed off. She goes home with him, and like they had sex whatever, having a good time. And umm she starts really liking him and he starts really liking her. And throughout the next few weeks or so, she starts to have really weird rashes, on her arms and on her legs.

JS: I know that one!

AF: You know the story? Haha. And so they start to get really bad.

JS: Both of them?

AF: No no, just her. You know she start to living there since they are together and stuff. Umm, wait, take it back, it was for a short period of time. it was like two weeks or so. And so then she goes to the doctor and she was like: “What the heck is those rash?” And the doctor was like: “we don’t know, we haven’t seen this kind of rashes before. It’s none of poison ivy, random things, a cream. You are not allergic to anything. We don’t know what this is.” And they were like: “You know let us just perform more tests.” And then she goes back to the guys house, doing whatever, and she got a call from the doctor while she was at the house. The doctor was like: “Well, you not gonna believe this, but have you working with raw meet or anything?” And she goes: “No.” They were like: “The rashes are associated with a meet tenderizer. The one that tenderize your muscle and everything.” And apparently, the guy is a cannibal. Yea, that was it, When my friend told me that story, I like shocked cuz apparently the guy was like super handsome, just totally your average Joe guy. I was like it’s a good story but not good, you know, not to go home with random people I guess.

Background information:

This story is a popular urban legend that takes place in European context. So, when my informant interned in Prague last summer, she first encountered the story when she and her friend rode on scooters in the park. Her friend told AF the story while riding the scooter and my informant was really shocked because she thought it was a real story. As she heard the story couple times, she realized that it was just a story that went around. However, she definitely thinks that this story does a good job telling people not to go home with strangers. After knowing the story, AF became more conscious about the strangers she met randomly in order to protect herself better.

Context:

This piece was collected in an interview with a casual setting. I was having lunch at the cafe and I invited her over to talk about interesting folklore that she knew.

Thoughts:

This is not the first time I hear about the stories. I hear a couple times but with different version. But the story always takes place in Europe. It can be a coincidence or simply because people in America like to visit Europe and they feel more mysterious if the story is put in an exotic context. The story often involves in meeting strangers whether in a bar or through dating app. I feel since dating app and party culture become more and more popular among younger generation, people are not too cautious about the people they meet. And that’s why this kind of story starts to go around among younger generation, especially college students, to alert people about their safety issues. This story, although does not fit into the category of traditional legend story, it adapts younger culture and becomes an urban legend.

 

Protection

坐月子:Postpartum Confinement

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: In China, there is a big culture of “坐月子(zuo yue zi)”, literally means “sit on the month “, but just refer to like postpartum confinement, like the month after woman deliver their child. Usually it’s one month, but I think my mom did two month. Anyway it just a really big stage of your life, you know, delivering the baby, and then people in China believe that it’s a big event for the body too, so women need to aware of a lot of things for the month following delivery. For example, they should shower less. I mean if it strict, they should be showering at all, but you know in modern world, who can not shower for so long. Anyway, it’s like showering less, brush you teeth with warm water instead of cold, don’t touch cold water, drink warm water all the time. Rest a lot definitely, like that why it’s “Sit on the month” you know, not like “run on the month”. Avoid wind, if it’s really windy outside then don’t go out side, because they think the wind and the cold is easier to get into the body at that period of time. And also you know food is big part, like they have certain food to eat to one on hand help with milking, and help body get nutrition on the other. They will consider some kind of food has a cold character (寒性- han xing) and some kind of food is hot character(热性-re xing) and something in between. So you need to choose food character according to your body type. Like for example, if you have ulcer in your mouth that means you body is getting too hot, so you will need something that has a colder character like green tea.

Interviewer: How do you define cold or hot for food?

Informant: Ummm…Good questions. I honestly don’t know. You just grew up learning their character from you parents. It’s like if I eat too much mango all at once, my mom would say something like: “your body will be getting too hot.” or something like that I don’t know. So yea, I think older generation definitely have more restriction, but I don’t think younger generation follow it as strict, they kinda do a little modification according to their needs.

Background:

My informant was born in Beijing, China. She knows about this tradition because almost everyone practices it in China and her mom does it too. She will definitely practice postpartum confinement by the time she delivers a baby because she thinks that it is such an important phase of woman’s life and she needs to take the time to take care of her body. She always believes that giving birth to a kid in a way is a rebirth of that woman as well. And because the body undergoes such a big incident, the body is recovering itself too. So with proper care, it helps the body to recover better and even takes away some existing illness.

Context

My informant is my roommate. She finished high school in China and came to the States after. I invited her to have a brief interview session with me to talk about Chinese folklore in general because I feel there is lot of interesting folklore in China that is very different from the rest of the world. And this conversation was conducted when we were cooking for dinner, so both of us are pretty relaxed.

Thoughts

“Sitting the month” is definitely a huge culture difference between China and America. I know that a lot of people in the United States go right back to work within ten days after delivering the baby, which sounds crazy to Chinese people. Though there is some debate on whether it is scientific of postpartum confinement, most people still practice it because it is a tradition that has been around for thousands of years. As my informant mentions, the stricter rule in the past is minimal shower times within a month after delivery, and that is because in older time period, the condition is pretty bad, so people are more likely to catch a cold when showering, especially during winter time. Nowadays, with technology getting better and people living on a higher quality life, more rules are bent towards favor, but the cultural of “sitting the month” still applies.

Folk Beliefs

Don’t Place Your Head Pointing North When You Sleep

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: One thing I always do is like I never place, like when I’m sleeping, whenever I move into a new room, and I never sleep on the side where my head is facing north. Like my head is pointing north. Like if I sleep this way, that part can never be north. Like any other direction but north.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Informant: North is just really bad direction for us. Ummm, I think it’s cuz it symbolize coldness, coldness or like winter, or just like, I think ghost as well. Just like all the bed thing situated at north. It just like a bad connotation. South is like, sunny, warm, you know, but north is like cold. So if you play with color, north is like white, grey, blue, darkness. Or south is like, you know, red, orange, yellow, you know what I mean? So like it’s not like such a big deal but I never point north when I am sleeping. So I always check direction when I move to new apartment.

Interviewer: If you sleep with head pointing north, what will happen?

Informant: It just like bad dreams, you won’t sleep well.

Background:

My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So, although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She learns this folk piece from her mom. Whenever they move to a new house or place bed in a room, her mom will always check the direction and make sure the bed does not point north. Growing up with this believe, my informant also practices it, and never sleeps with her head pointing north.

Context:

She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.

Thoughts:

I feel in Asian countries, people are really aware of the directions, especially when they buy houses. For example, in China, people like their houses or rooms face south because of more sunshine time. And they say the room temperature in a room that faces south tend to be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer compares to other rooms. There is also a price difference in the apartment that faces south and others. If the apartment faces south, it will be more popular and sell at a higher price. However, even selling with a higher price tag, the ones that face south are usually the first batch to be sold out. After I come to America, I realize that people do not put such value on direction, which is one of the big differences I discovered between east culture and west culture.

 

Proverbs

“If You Lie Down With Dogs, You Get Up With Fleas”

Main piece:

“We have sayings like as my mama always said, she will always sit there and be like: ‘Ummm when you lay with dog you get fleas.’ So you are who yourself associate with the all times, your direct function of whoever you decide you associate with and who you are friends with.”

Background:

My informant always hears her mom say this saying to her to warn her be aware of the people who she decides to associate with. She is largely influenced by this saying as she grows up, and she is constantly aware of the people who she is friends with. She also tries to stay away from the people who she does not appreciate to avoid bad influence on her.

Context:

This piece of folklore was collected through a quick interview after class. My informant and I knew each other when we first came to the college, so the setting was really causal and both of us were relaxed.

Thoughts:

I know a similar saying but in Chinese, which is:

Original saying in Chinese: 近朱者赤, 近墨者黑

Phonetic (Roman) script: Jin zhu zhe chi, jin mo zhe hei.

Transliteration: If you go towards red then you are red, and if you go towards black then you are black.

Full translation: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

This saying also alerts people to be aware of the people that they are associated with. The color red in this saying refers to good influence, and the color black refers to bad influence. I grow up hearing this saying multiple times. It is also in the primary school textbook and my parents say it to me often too to educate me to be a good person and to be selective of my social circle.

 

 

Customs

Jumping the Broom at Wedding

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: We do jumping the broom. That’s one, that’s like black tradition. Yea, after you get married, and before you walk down to the aisle as Mr and Mrs, you jump over the broom at the altar.

Interviewer: What does that mean?

Informant: I honestly don’t know, it’s just like new beginning, like a wish luck type of tradition.

Interviewer: Does that mean anything to you?

Informant: It’s just like a tradition. Everyone does it.

Background:

My informant is African American, and her entire family is originally from Louisiana. They are all Creole descendants. Jumping the broom is a typical African American tradition at a wedding ceremony, so my informant is aware of this tradition as she goes to different weddings, mostly her relatives’ weddings. Though she does not know what exactly does jumping over the broom signify, she still follows this tradition as she grows up with this culture.

Context:

This piece of folklore was collected through a quick interview after class. My informant and I knew each other when we first came to the college, so the setting was really causal and both of us were relaxed.

Thoughts:

It is interesting to find that my informant is not really aware of the meaning behind the tradition of jumping over the broom, but she still follows it. A lot of the time, people do not fully understand the custom, but because they grow up practicing it, it becomes a habit. Similar to my experience, from the place where I grow up, China, specifically, there are certain food to eat for certain festivals. Usually, there is meaning behind each food and reasons why people eat it. However, most of the time, I do not know the symbolic meaning, but rather consume the products. Especially, when my mom buys the food for the family members, we rarely question the deeper meaning behind it. In such case, folk food almost becomes a commodity rather than a representation of culture.

 

Folk Beliefs

Chicken Wishbone

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: Remembering my mom used to make chicken when my sister and I were younger, if she was making chicken, she would take out the wishbone and set it to the side. And we would have to let it dry, or hollow out for a day. And next day, my sister and I, we would each pull one of the sides of the bone, and whoever got the larger piece would have good luck. And it is based on how it snaps. If it snaps with a bigger side, that’s what signifies luck. I am not really sure why, but yea…

Interviewer: How do you feel about this activity?

Informant: Umm, so my sister and I would always be excited when we were younger, we don’t really do it that much anymore. It’s just a big part of our childhood. I would always lose.

Interviewer: Is it because she pull harder?

Informant: I think it might just been… I guess one of the leg of the bones, not really a leg, is thicker and my sister would always get the first pick. So…

Interviewer: Is she older or younger?

Informant: She’s older.

Background:

My informant was born in San Francisco and moved to Virginia when she was four. She came back to the west coast for college and she felt the culture is really different. For this piece, she knew from her mom, and she and her sister were always excited to practice it when they were younger. For them, it is a way to get lucky, but more importantly, this activity reminds them of their childhood. Though my informant always loses because her older sister gets to pick first, this activity reflects my informant’s caring personality and her family relationship.

Context:

This piece is collected in a causal interview setting. My informant and I finished our class and were talking as we walked to the USC village together. We then sit in an outdoor space and collected some folklore from each other.

Thoughts:

It reminds me of some similar belief in China. But instead of chicken bone, we flip a fishbone, and if the tip stays on the top, it represents good luck. This activity usually takes place during family dinner and is viewed as a fun competition among kids. The chicken wishbone activity mentioned above, not only brings fun and excitement for kids, but also stimulates better bonding among siblings. Although sometimes some kids lose and get disappointed, it is still an important part of their childhood memory. A lot of the times, I find that people practice certain activity not because they truly believe it, but because it adds fun to life, or it makes them feel better. For the case of my informant, even she is not fully convinced that wishbone brings good luck, she still gets excited when she is a child.

 

Folk speech
Musical

Vibe: Jazz slang

Context:

 

The informant – AB – is a 20-year-old white male and is a sophomore at the USC Thornton School studying Jazz Guitar. The following excerpts/quotes are from a conversation with AB and some other jazz majors during the break of a music industry class. After class, I asked him to explain some of the jazz lingo that took place during the prior conversation. The conversation from which the quotes were taken was the most natural context possible, as the students – all jazz musicians – were simply having a conversation, and I was taking note of their use of lingo. Asking AB to explain the lingo after, he knew he was explaining to the readers of the collection and not to me, since he knows that I myself am a jazz major and am familiar with the slang.

 

Piece:

AB/Other students: “Peter vibed me soo hard in my lesson the other day for not having my transcription written out.”

“Man, Aaron is super killing but he’s such a vibe.”

“I was at the mint jam session last night… It was hosted by the Monk Institute cats… I basically got vibed off the stage haha… it was dark.”

“The red vest over a t-shirt… that could be a vibe!”

Me (after class): I keep hearing the word “vibe” pop up in jazz conversation. Could you explain what that means?

AB: Sure. It’s kinda hard to explain. It pretty much means to condescend someone at a jam session, but it’s used pretty loosely now, like it doesn’t need to be exclusively in a musical context. Or if someone “is a vibe,” that means that they’re kind of a dick.

Me: That’s interesting, since most people say vibe to mean, like, positive vibes.

AB: Yeah, and it could mean that too. Like saying that something is a vibe could also mean that it’s hip. It depends on the context I guess.

 

Analysis:

As a jazz musician myself, I know from experience that “vibing” at jam sessions is a pretty big part of jazz culture. Jazz culture is very elitist, and jazz musicians like to maintain the somewhat cutthroat environment that you hear about in old jazz stories. Condescending people at jam sessions and letting people know that you know you’re better than them is one of the primary ways that this dynamic is maintained. Further, slang within any clique is a way of creating an exclusionary environment. Knowing and using jazz lingo that non-jazz musicians don’t understand creates a feeling of unity and cohesiveness within the community, as does the slang of any social group.

 

Folk speech
Musical

Shed: Jazz lingo

Context:

The informant – AB – is a 20-year-old white male and is a sophomore at the USC Thornton School studying Jazz Guitar. The following excerpts/quotes are from a conversation with AB and some other jazz majors during the break of a music industry class. After class, I asked him to explain some of the jazz lingo that took place during the prior conversation. The conversation from which the quotes were taken was the most natural context possible, as the students – all jazz musicians – were simply having a conversation, and I was taking note of their use of lingo. Asking AB to explain the lingo after, he knew he was explaining to the readers of the collection and not to me, since he knows that I myself am a jazz major and am familiar with the slang.

 

Piece:

AB/Other students: “Yo, have you shed for your jury yet?”

“I’m gonna be hitting the shed all weekend, I haven’t even started learning my transcription.”

“Have you shed this Herbie Hancock album, The New Standard?”

Me (after class): In our conversation earlier, I heard the word “shed” come up a lot. What does that mean in this context?

AB: Umm, shed just means, like to practice something or check something out. Like if I say, “shed my scales,” it means “practice my scales,” or if I say “I’ve been shedding this album,” it means I’ve been listening to that album a lot.

Me: Do you know where this slang comes from?

AB: There’s a story that… ah fuck who is it…? I think Charlie Parker…? locked himself in a woodshed for months to practice after folding hard at a jam session. So some people say “hit the woodshed,” but most people just say, “hit the shed,” or just, “shed.”

 

Analysis:

As a jazz major myself, I know that the idea of holing up and practicing for hours, or even days, is highly romanticized. People often brag about how much they’ve been “shedding,” and there are a lot of legends and stories about the countless hours that the most famous jazz giants spent practicing without any social contact. Slang within any clique is a way of creating an exclusionary environment. Knowing and using jazz lingo that non-jazz musicians don’t understand creates a feeling of unity and cohesiveness within the community, as does the slang of any social group.

 

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